Office 365: Come for Exchange, stay for SharePoint, Lync

Office 365 LogoMicrosoft wants its partners to make it clear: There’s more to Office 365 than just e-mail.

Sure, the headline act in Microsoft’s new cloud-based suite, formally released Tuesday after being announced last fall, is Exchange. But there’s a lot of other functionality beyond that, including the popular SharePoint intranet and collaboration platform and Microsoft’s recently revised Lync unified communications software – both products that have been heretofore largely out of reach for smaller customers due to complexity and cost involved with acquiring and maintaining them.

But all that potentially changes with Office 365 and its promise of a neat and tidy $7 per seat per month price tag. And Microsoft is counting on its partners to help turn those “other components” of Office 365 into stars.

“Office 365 is a game-changer – a no-compromise solution that comprehends the different modalities where people want access, across the PC, the phone and the browser, as well as the complimentary relationship between the online and offline product,” said Eric Gales, president of Microsoft Canada at a Tuesday press event in Toronto for the Office 365 launch. “It also allows SMBs to take advantage of the cloud without having to change everything.”

It’s the kind of high praise that an executive is wont to lavish on a high-profile, make-or-break kind of product launch for sure. But it’s also telling – Gales choice of wording, and Microsoft’s messaging in general around Office 365, steers away from ideas like Exchange and e-mail, opting instead for concepts of collaboration, mobility and ubiquity. This isn’t just a Microsoft that understands the trend towards the consumerization of IT. This is a Microsoft that wants to lead that charge. Case in point: Microsoft opted to host its Toronto press event launching the suite at a King Street West coffee shop, because, as Microsoft Canada Office guru Jason Brommet put it, “coffee shops have become the business hub of today” for small businesses.

For partners, Gales said the opportunity was in helping smaller customers look bigger and more sophisticated, both in terms of infrastructure and online presence. It’s not a new need, but it’s an opportunity that has remained nascent for some time. “But now [partners] have a suite that they’re familiar with, with which they can leverage their skills to solve those problems,” he said.

But it’s Brommet who comes right to the heart of the issue: about 70 per cent of the company’s customers for BPOS, the direct forebear of Office 365, are small businesses, companies where applications like Lync and SharePoint represent a powerful opportunity, but a previously inaccessible one.

“There are lots of latent opportunities in that small reseller market” around instant messaging, presence, and enterprise-grade VOIP, Brommet suggested. “These weren’t applications that [small businesses] had access to in the first place.”

One of those customers clamoring for Office 365 is Ted Gorsline, president of cell phone service negotiator MobileVantage. Gorsline said his company looked at other options, including competitor Google Docs, before deciding that Office 365 was the way to go. Gorsline said Office 365 is unique in offering ease of use, plus a very professional appearance, both internally and externally.

“It had everything we need, plus Exchange, which is a very expensive thing for many small businesses,” he said. “There are just so many things you can do with it that would be otherwise out of reach” for an organization like the four-person MobileVantage.

It’s that “all-inclusive” message, and the additional power around it that Microsoft is counting on its partners to deliver. And it’s one that the channel is starting to deliver. Chris Day of Vancouver-based MSP Fully Managed said that customers were attracted to BPOS for hosting e-mail, and that’s about it. Sure, there was a little interest in Office Communicator, and some in LiveMeeting. But mostly, it was Exchange.

Today, Fully Managed is more focused on the full range of collaboration tools included in Office 365. Day said the company is making the also-ran components a central part of its marketing around Office 365. But it’s not by name, necessarily – Lync is generally unknown, and SharePoint is either unknown or brings with a reputation for complexity and unwieldiness. Rather, the MSP is focused on demonstrations of the suite and the kind of functionality behind it.

That way, SMB customers get to see what Office 365 (and the right partner) can allow them to do. And if the partner plays his cards right, he also gets some credit for his role in it.

“When we show it to them, the coolness of it gets associated with us, because we’re the ones bringing that technology to them,” Day said.

Day said there’s no doubt that Lync and SharePoint will be “highly utilized this time around” in Office 365, and it’s the main driver. He said customers on the fence are jumping in, and those on BPOS already are looking to move up.

“[Microsoft partners] can now forward with huge confidence that it’s a much more functional solution than Google Apps,” Day said. “It would have been nice if this had been there in the first version.”